by Hank Leukart
February 9, 2013
Hurry, turn left at the fountain!
Getting lost in Portugal’s Duoro Valley, the birthplace of port wine.
Wine ages in wooden barrels at Taylor’s Port Wine in Porto, Portugal. (view all Porto, Portugal photos)
UORO VALLEY, Portugal — Lines to the cash register snake out of the door at the famous Antiga Confeitaria de Belém pastry shop in Lisbon as my mom, my brother Brian, and I stand amongst the chaos of hundreds of people clamoring to buy a Pastéis de Belém, Portugal’s traditional egg tart. A Portuguese man sees that we look utterly baffled and, taking pity on us, instructs us where to stand. When I reach the front of one of the lines, I realize that we’ve been standing in a line that will allow us to buy tarts but not one that will let us sit at a table. But, since so many people are trying to get to the register, I quickly pay for three egg tarts and we rush outside.
“Here, eat these!” I say as the three of us huddle together on the sidewalk. The tarts taste good, but before we can get a chance to savor them, they’re gone, and we’ve jumped back into the car.
Though we’ve been planning to visit the Algarve, Portugal’s southern coast, Brian suggests instead that we drive to Porto. He’s read about the city in a guidebook, and he wants to taste Porto’s internationally famous export, port wine and see the city’s wine caves, where wine ages and waits for shipment. We have to make some hotel reservation changes, but we decide that half the fun of a road trip is changing the route on-the-fly. So, we speed off in a new direction, toward northern Portugal, stopping on the way to see the famous round church in Tomar’s Castle and Convent of the Order of Christ, the enormous kitchen at the gothic Monastery of Alcobaça, and the narrow, cobblestone streets and Christmas market in medieval Óbidos.
When we finally arrive in Porto, we take a walking tour of the city: we admire the dazzling azulejos in the São Bento train station, the beautiful, towering Igreja de São Francisco, the Roman ruins in the Casa do Infante, and the Eiffel-inspired Ponte de Dom Luís I, which links Porto to the suburb of Gaia over the Duoro River. In Gaia, a charming, British woman gives us a tour of dark, musty warehouses containing barrels of aging wines at Taylor’s Port Wine, one of Porto’s oldest founding Port houses and the only remaining one that is family-owned. We’re pleasantly surprised by the three port wines we’re given to taste, and I leave with less of an aversion to the often-cloying sweetness of port wine less than before.
“Where to now?” Brian asks me. We know that, at 3 PM, we need to show up for a scheduled tour of the Quinta do Vallado vineyard in the Duoro Valley, where vineyards grow grapes to make port wine. But, when we reach a roundabout leading to a web of highways, I still haven’t figured out at what other destinations we’ll stop on the way there. Brian is driving the car round and round the roundabout because he doesn’t know which direction to go yet.
“Which roundabout exit do I get off at?!” Brian asks, as cars whiz by us. We’ve been driving in circles for a few minutes. My view of the scenery outside the car windows is starting to blur.
“I don’t know! Maybe we should drive to this weird Baroque staircase? Or this college town called Coimbra?” I say, frazzled.
“I can’t leave the roundabout until you tell me where to go!” Brian keeps driving the car around the circle repeatedly, wanting to avoid heading off in the wrong direction.
“I don’t know where we’re going! Just stop!”
“We’re in a roundabout! I can’t stop! And we don’t have time!”
“I’m feeling sick! Just pick a direction!”
“Fine, but we’re going to be heading the wrong way!” Brian says, as he drives us onto a randomly-chosen highway. Soon, of course, I realize that we’re headed in exactly the wrong direction to visit Braga, the home of the Bom Jesus do Monte church and its famous Baroque staircase. I feel like I’m going to throw up, and everyone is feeling rushed by our 3 PM appointment. Nevertheless, we turn around, hurry up the beautiful staircase at the Bom Jesus do Monte (worth it!), and then begin driving toward the Duoro Valley, hoping to get a feel for it before we arrive at the vineyard.
Using my iPhone, I find a New York Times article about the Valley that suggests a drive through the countryside and includes vague directions from the village of Castedo: “…turn left at the fountain in the center of that village onto a narrow, bumpy road sloping sharply down.” I direct Brian toward Castedo, but the mountain that we’re on is so shrouded in fog that we feel like we’re flying at 30,000 feet, and we can’t tell a fountain from a cow.
“Why are these directions so vague and dumb?” I wonder. Looking out the windows of the car, all we see is white.
“We’re not going to make it to the tour in time!” my mom reminds us from the backseat.
But, Brian and I are so enamored with the feeling of getting lost in the eerie Duoro fog that we continue navigating aimlessly on the network of steep roads skirting the peaks. Eventually, there’s a break in the fog, and we’re rewarding by an expansive view of the Alto Duoro: twisted rows of green vineyard grapes, curvy mountain roads, and the orange roofs of small ranch houses. As we continue down one of the precipitous, winding roads, I feel a shot of adrenaline, having no idea where it leads. It occurs to me that the New York Times writer cleverly engineered this serendipitous result, and I’m thankful.
When we arrive, finally, at the Quinta do Vallado, still in time for the vineyard tour, we meet an affable family from Arizona: a middle-aged, married couple with two college-aged daughters.
“How about those roads?!” says one of the daughters as we walk past rows and rows of wine barrels. “We were terrified! I never want to drive on those again.” It occurs to me that the Arizonians have missed the point of the Alto Duoro.
On the last day of our road trip, on our way back to Lisbon and without any specific appointments, we agree to take a detour to see Conimbriga, the best-preserved Roman ruins in Portugal. For lunch, we decide to stop at Porta Larga, a highly-touted roast pork sandwich shop in the adjacent college town of Coimbra.
We meander into the small restaurant, sit on the stools at the bar, and chat with Antonio, the restaurant’s owner. We order three pork sandwiches, and when he offers us a special dipping sauce, we accept. When the sandwiches arrive, we enjoy them slowly, smothering them in the salty topping and reveling in the strong flavor. We’re savoring every bite.
Pastéis de Belém, Portugal’s famous custard egg tart, sit on a rack waiting to be purchased. (photo by Brian Leukart)
A beautiful, Baroque staircase can be climbed by visitors to the Bom Jesus do Monte church in Braga, Portugal.
Expansive views greet visitors to Portugal's Alto Duoro. (view all Duoro Valley, Portugal photos)
A photograph of a roasting pig sits above customers at the Porta Larga restaurant in Coimbra, Portugal.
How to Visit Porto and the Duoro Valley
- PORTO: Portugal’s second largest city is known for Portugal’s most famous international export, port wine. In Vila Nova de Gaia, tourists can see the wine “caves” where port wine is stored and aged before being shipped around the world. We visited Taylor’s Port Wine, one of Porto’s oldest founding Port houses and the only remaining one that is family-owned. In Porto, stay at the Palácio do Freixo, a Baroque-style palace and National Monument with modern furnishings.
- THE DUORO VALLEY: This Valley is Portugal’s wine grape growing region. We stayed at Quinta Do Vallado, one of the oldest estates in the Douro Valley. The exceptionally comfortable, onsite Wine Hotel has an 18th-century, refurbished 5-room Mannor House and a newer, 8-room, modern hotel. The vineyard also offers tours of their operation, wine tastings, cooking classes, outdoor excursions, and excellent meals in the onsite restaurant.
- LOGISTICS: Porto is a three hour drive north of Lisbon, and the Duoro Valley is a 90 minute drive east of Porto. It’s also possible to fly to Porto’s international airport from several major world cities.